Liberalism and Its Discontents

Slavoj Zizek:

The inner tension of this project is discernible in two aspects of liberalism: market liberalism and political liberalism. As Jean-Claude Michea has brilliantly argued, these two aspects of liberalism are linked to two political meanings of “Right”: the political Right insists on market economy, the politically-correct Left insists on the defence of human rights – often its sole remaining raison d’etre.

Although the tension between these two aspects of liberalism is irreducible, they are nonetheless inextricably linked, like the two sides of the same coin. And so, today, the meaning of “liberalism” swings between the two poles of economic liberalism (free market individualism, opposition to strong state regulation, and so on) and political liberalism or libertarianism (with the accent on equality, social solidarity, permissiveness, and so on).

The point is that, while one cannot decide through some close analysis which is the “true” liberalism, one also cannot resolve the deadlock by way of trying to propose a kind of “higher” synthesis of the two, much less through some clear distinction between the two senses of the term. The tension between the two meanings is inherent to the very content that “liberalism” endeavours to designate: this ambiguity, far from signalling the limits of our understanding, points to the innermost “truth” of the notion of liberalism itself.

Traditionally, each “face” of liberalism necessarily appears as the opposite of the other face: liberal advocates of multiculturalist tolerance, as a rule, fight against economic liberalism and try to protect the vulnerable from the ravages of unencumbered market forces, while free-market liberals, as a rule, advocate conservative family values.

We thus get a kind of double paradox: the traditionalist Right supports the market economy while ferociously fighting the culture and mores it engenders; while its counterpoint, the multiculturalist Left, fights against the market (though less and less these days, as Michea notes) while enthusiastically enforcing the ideology it engenders. (Today, it should be said, we seem to be entering a new era in which both aspects can be combined: figures like Bill Gates pose as market radicals and as multiculturalist humanitarians.)

The New Atheists and the Old Empire

From Jacobin:

In explaining his transition from radical polemicist to neoconservative hawk, Christopher Hitchens insisted that his politics had not changed. It was perfectly consistent, he opined, to have opposed the Vietnam War on anti-imperialist grounds and unapologetically supported the invasion of Iraq; perfectly consistent to have abandoned confraternity with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Edward Said and sipped champagne at the White House as a guest of Paul Wolfowitz.

Hitchens liked to claim that a single intellectual thread united his positions, namely opposition to “totalitarianism”: “The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy — the one that’s absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes.”

But for all his pro-imperial bluster, it was Hitchens’ attacks on religion that finally garnered him international fame. These, too, he claimed, were fundamentally “anti-totalitarian,” analogous to resisting North Korea or Joseph Stalin. A leading light of the “New Atheist” movement, the former socialist spent his final decade at war with religion and at peace with imperialism.

Against Taylor’s Secular Age

From First Things:

Why was it once virtually impossible not to believe in God, while today many of us find this not only easy, but inescapable?” The question is Charles Taylor’s, and his nine-hundred-page answer has arguably been the academic event of the decade. Seven years after its publication, A Secular Age has done more than reignite the debate over secularization and its religious roots. It offers to change the very terms in which Christians profess belief.

One of the world’s leading philosophers, Taylor is known for the expansive breadth of his interests in a discipline whose research programs have shriveled in scope. He has written commandingly on German romanticism, ethics, hermeneutics, and the philosophies of mind and action, and has done so in a relaxed style that draws smoothly on literature and history.

Taylor has done little to disguise his religiosity, something that also sets him apart from the philosophical establishment. He describes himself as a “believer” and “person of faith” and without affecting embarrassment. A professed Catholic, he has made occasional sorties into the Church’s intellectual life, quietly signaling his sympathies for liberal movements in theology. Following the publication of Sources of the Self in 1989, a book that credited ­Augustine with inventing inner selfhood, Taylor’s writings took a soft theological turn. A Secular Age is the kind of work readers probably should have seen coming.

Monumental in scope, heroic in ambition, and serenely neglectful of scholarly conventions, the book is in no way a spiritual autobiography. It is something more revealing—an invitation to experience, by way of historical epic, the emergence of a modern Christian spirituality and its fraught relationship with unbelief. Taylor has been both celebrated and faulted for authoring an apology for Christianity. I regret to say he has done nothing of the sort. Although the advocacy is indirect and the theology implied, ­Taylor instead encourages readers to embrace a modern mode of faith that accommodates itself to contemporary culture.

Robinson on Edwards

A fantastic essay, if you haven’t read it yet:

When I was in college, and even earlier because my older brother introduced me to Modern Thought as he was introduced to it, I felt gloomily captive to the determinisms of Positivism, Behaviorism, Freudianism, Marxism, and the rest. I was troubled by all this for years. Then I was assigned by a philosophy professor to read Jonathan Edwards’s treatiseThe Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended, Part Four, Chapter III. I found in it a glorious footnote on moonlight, and was liberated.

I know this sounds improbable on its face. We are told that it is modernity that liberates, and Puritanism, with its famous defense of predestination and its all-devouring work ethic, that we ought to be, and perhaps never are, liberated from. I have always been unperturbed by these criticisms. First, despite its many difficulties, the doctrine of predestination, which is nearly universal among Christian theologies, though used polemically against Puritans, at least holds the line against the notion that we get what we deserve, which is conceptually even cruder, and an invitation to self-righteousness and judgmentalism that flies in the face of central teachings of Christ. Second, the satisfactions of work may reinforce an ethic, but they are more than sufficient as reward all by themselves. More generally, no major conceptual system has ever dealt satisfactorily with every problem it raises. Theology, like cosmology, pushes at the limits of the knowable and the articulable. Dogmatism and hostile criticism alike can make the difficulties that arise in thinking at this scale seem to be its whole meaning and substance. So we learn how not to read a great literature for its actual value.

Reading the Right Atheists

This, from Ethika Politica, is helpful:

Stephen Bullivant’s Faith and Unbelief offers a better strategy for Christians who want to engage atheists. He proposes that instead of demonizing atheists, we should seek out the best among them, those who are most open to dialogue, instead of going after the lowliers. It makes sense to engage the Nietzsches of our age without forgetting that the 19th century had its fair share of Feuerbachs, Renans, and Thomas Huxleys.

This is not only a challenge to Hart, but as you’ll note from all the atheism-related posts I’ve written (see: here), I’m somewhat guilty of the lowlier strategy. In an attempt to redeem myself I came up with a list of ten books by ten living atheists who engage religion (mostly) charitably.

It didn’t take me very long. I’m sure you can think of some prominent figures that I’ve omitted. They are listed below along with representative books, and their publisher blurbs.

One of the things Matt constantly pushes me to do is interact with the best representatives of a tradition and aspire to working on that level, rather than simply picking fights with the latest headline-grabbing hack. It’s a good goal and the list linked above is a helpful resource in figuring out how to do that.

War Has a Mind of Its Own

A thoughtful essay titled “The ‘Aresian Risk’ of Unmanned Maritime Systems,” by a Naval philosopher. The “Aresian risk” to which Hatfield refers is the risk the ancients understood but moderns have largely forgotten: war, symbolized by Ares, god of war, is more than just the sum of two warring parties:

It is instructive to note that the ancient Greeks, through their personification of war with the god Ares, had the conceptual resources to cope with the true nature of war in a manner that has become less accessible to modern strategists. In this respect we have become rational to a fault. Like the actual warfare that defines recent experience, Ares was thought to have a mind of his own. Capable of independent action, he was no tool of men. Because of this, all Greek commanders understood warfare as a peculiarly precarious undertaking.

Alex Pruss on Real Moral Dilemmas

People frequently talk about moral dilemmas, but what they usually are referring to are not genuine dilemmas but hard choices, ones in which, say, the right choice is painful or bothersome. That’s not quite right.

Some people—notably, St. Thomas—think that you can have real dilemmas, ones where you are obligated to do each of two incompatible actions, but only when you’ve done something wrong. For instance, one might make incompatible promises to two different people, and then have a real dilemma, but of course it’s wrong to make such incompatible promises.

A Photo of the Philosopher John Searle in a Chair with a Rifle

Also, an interview with him.

What do you do differently from the everyday person? Do you get up early and read texts by ancient philosophers?

John Searle: I don’t watch television very much. . . . I think it is clear that the media have had an enormous effect on our sensibility. It’s very hard to know what the long-term effect of this is, but I think there’s no question that we’re getting an impoverished sensibility as a result of overexposure to electronic media. I don’t read much philosophy, it upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries, the theory of extended mind makes me want to throw up . . . so mostly I read works of fiction and history. I love reading history books and I love reading works of fiction, there’s just an enormous amount of great stuff written.

Faulkner, the great American modernists, I can’t tell you the influence they’ve had on me. No philosopher has influenced me as much as Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald – they’ve had an enormous influence on my whole sensibility – and the whole American modernist tradition. There are so many great history books and great novels, not to mention poetry and other forms of literature, that I spend much more time on literature than I do on philosophy. I’m not boasting about that, I’m complaining, I probably should read more philosophy than I do. But I think a lot of works of philosophy are like root-canal work, you just think you’ve got to get through that damn thing.

My great obsession of course is skiing, and I do ski like a nut. However I have to tell you, once you get past 80 you are just not as good at giant slalom as you used to be. I’m not going to make the next Olympic team.

Husserl’s Students

The German philosopher Edmund Husserl had a number of students. A recent First Things article discusses two of them: Dietrich von Hildebrand and Edith Stein.

Dietrich and Edith both found in Husserl not only a refutation of modern skepticism, but a convincing alternative. “It was for me like experiencing a sunrise,” wrote Dietrich. Husserl had demonstrated “that the human mind could attain absolute certainty.”

Edith, for her part, would apply Husserl’s methodology to her own writings and search for truth, now guided by a new foundation. Their attraction to phenomenology would foreshadow its influence on numerous other Catholic thinkers, not least the future pope and saint, Karol Wojtyla.